Brain Pickings

Drawing Autism: A Visual Tour of the Autistic Mind from Kids and Celebrated Artists on the Spectrum

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Pattern-recognition, demon-taming, and a humbling invitation into a different way of experiencing the world.

Autism and its related conditions remain among the least understood mental health issues of our time. But one significant change that has taken place over the past few years has been a shift from perceiving the autistic mind not as disabled but as differently abled — and often impressive in its difference, as in extraordinary individuals like mathematical mastermind Daniel Tammet or architectural savant Gilles Trehin. And yet despite the stereotype of the autistic mind as a methodical computational machine, much of its magic — the kind most misunderstood — lies in its capacity for creative expression.

Three years after the original publication, New-York-based behavior analyst Jill Mullin returns with an expanded edition of Drawing Autism (public library) — a beautiful and thoughtful celebration of the vibrantly creative underbelly of autism, featuring contributions from more than 50 international graphic artists and children who fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, with a foreword by none other than Temple Grandin.

Kay Aitch: Lost in Thought

For artist Kay Aitch, who was diagnosed with Autism at the age of fifty-one, the creative process is a form of pattern-recognition — one of the typically recognized fortes of the autistic mind. She tells Mullin:

Everything around me inspires me to create art. What inspires me about creating art is the process of making marks, the feel of things, the seeing shapes and patterns in things.

Eleni Michael: Dancing with the Dog

Artist Eleni Michael celebrates the soul-expanding power of dogs amid trauma:

This was painted in 1995, not long after I had moved into a housing project for people with special needs. I was euphoric about my new home—a self-contained flat surrounded by a huge garden in a rural setting. (This idyll did not last long.) I brought my dog Jasper with me. He was the only lively animal there and brought great pleasure to me and all of the residents in the project. They loved him too and enjoyed playing with him and petting him. Jasper was a healthy presence and completely indiscriminate with his friendships.

Emily L. Williams: Leap Years

Urging that “talents need to be carefully nurtured and directed,” Temple Grandin writes in the foreword:

When I was a child, my mother nurtured my artistic ability. I was always encouraged to draw many different subjects. As an adult, I used my artistic talent for my business of designing livestock handling facilities. One of the lessons my mother taught me that really helped to develop my skills was to create pictures that other people would want.

In elementary school, I drew many pictures of horses. Individuals on the autism spectrum often become fixated on their favorite things. As a child I would keep drawing the same things over and over. The great motivation of these fixations has been channeled into the creation of all the beautiful art featured in this book.

As a longtime admirer of Gregory Blackstock’s obsessive visual lists, I was especially delighted to see his artwork included in the book:

Gregory Blackstock: The Balls

Repetitive patterns and visual taxonomies, in fact, are a recurring feature across a number of the pieces, such as this magnificent visual list of birds by 10-year-old David Barth:

David Barth: Birds

Kevin Hosseini: New York at Night

Eric Chen: Mirror Mind (1)

Eric Chen: Mirror Mind (2)

Eric Chen: Mirror Mind (3)

Eric Chen: Mirror Mind (4)

Emily L. Williams: They Take Away Your Razors, Your Shoelaces, and Your Belt

Some of the pieces blend broader symbolism with the harrowing specificity of the artists’ lives. Emily L. Williams reflects on the artwork above:

This is a small portion of a larger piece that’s yet to be completed. The larger piece is one of three in a series, focusing symbolically on psychiatric units, utilizing hell as an analogy. The demons in the piece were inspired by twelfth-century works depicting hell and the Final Judgment. The piece was also inspired by some of my own hospital stays in the past. While I was never a suicide risk, I always found it odd that none of the patients could have any of the items listed in the title of this piece. I understood the logic and the risk to suicidal patients, but nevertheless still found it strange to be walking around in shoes with their tongues hanging out or to have unshaven legs.

Wil C. Kerner: Pals

For 12-year-old Wil C. Kerner, it is his grandmother who explains the inspiration behind his piece:

The key in understanding Pals is the brown-rimmed, off-white donkey ear. Four facial expressions depict the bad boys turning into donkeys in the movie Pinocchio: purple-faced Pinocchio is stunned by his new ear and considering what to do; it’s too late for the horrified yellow face; the green trapezoid is oblivious to his pending fate; the blue head is looking away, hoping he’s not included.

Drawing Autism is absolutely wonderful in its entirety. Complement it with artist Bobby Baker’s visual diary of mental illness.

All images courtesy of Akashic Books / Jill Mullin

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